XXXTENTACION Realizes Much of His Potential on Posthumous Release

In the end, SKINS is an interesting album, at times unique and well performed, at times formulaic and boring. It is, however, X’s best project yet and one can only wish we’d had more time to see what an interesting artist he could’ve become.

     XXXTENTACION needs very little introduction. He rose to some prominence as a particularly successful star of fight videos from a Florida based account but reached a massive audience with the release of of his debut single “Look At Me!” Ever the controversial figure, X nevertheless became a staple of the growing Florida rap scene, which was especially brutal subset of Soundcloud rap. After a few singles and EP’s, he released his first studio album, 17 which is often credited with starting the recent trend of albums lasting less than half an hour. His follow up, ?, was slightly longer and released with Capitol records, peaking at number one on the billboard charts. Both albums went platinum. Unfortunately, X was shot and killed in June while in Florida.

   While his previous work was nothing if not intriguing, I generally found in lacking in key areas. The heavy metal and grunge influences where glaring, and even materialized in a few heavier cuts, some of the best in his discography. In many ways, he brought experimental techniques like lo-fi production, guitar based instrumentals, and screaming, distorted vocals to the mainstream and to a youth which had never listened to artists like Death Grips, who use these elements far more effectively. With Skins, his first posthumous release, I was unsure what to expect and if I should even review the record. After listening, though, I found a mixed bag full of interesting ideas that are well worth discussing.

   The album opens with an introduction that, while a bit corny, is far more interesting than the intro on a project like 17. There’s a tinge of tongue in the cheek here, which alleviates some of the cringing that followed X’s other intros.

   After the intro, we get a few tracks back to back that are some of the best in Tentacion’s entire catalog. “Guardian Angel,” maybe my favorite track, features a twisted sample of his earlier hit, “Jocelyn Flores,” under a hard hitting verse with an excellent flow. “Train Food,” follows, telling the story of a fictional narrator’s encounter with the personification of death, an eerie topic for obvious reasons. The final monologue from the perspective of a man tied to a train track is powerful and heartfelt with a flow that radiates with influences from artists like Eminem.

   After such a great start, though, we fall back into X’s most annoying tendency, making thoughtless vibe tracks with little input aside from singing an ignorable hook. This is especially true for “woah,” which honestly sounds like a beat waiting to be rapped over. This track would’ve been far better served as an instrumental on someone else’s album, crediting X as a feature. “BAD!” Is also guilty of this, though there are some lyrics, vapid and meaningless as they may be.

   After this slump, we get another high. “STARING AT THE SKY,” though a bit overly dramatic, taps into its emo-rock inspiration in an interesting way. The explosive and distorted chorus is a nice moment, bringing his earliest work full circle and realizing its goal. The same is true for “One Minute,” which features enough of a Kanye West influence that X is more of a feature, but an excellent feature at that. Both of these tracks stand as accomplishments, the first times that he has been able to adequately accomplish his goals of incorporating metal and hard rock in a genuine and interesting way.

   The “Difference” interlude is essentially a demo that was never able to be fully realized, though it holds quite a bit of promise. Unfortunately, it’s followed by “I don’t let go,” another vibe-heavy track with minimal and ultimately meaningless rapping, this time mixed very poorly and nearly inaudible. The closer, “what are you so afraid of,” is certainly listenable, featuring a heartfelt vocal over a sweetly played guitar. It’s not my favorite sound for X, but it’s done quite a bit better than others like it.

   In the end, SKINS is an interesting album, at times unique and well performed, at times formulaic and boring. It is, however, X’s best project yet and one can only wish we’d had more time to see what an interesting artist he could’ve become.

5/10

HEAR SKINS:      https://open.spotify.com/album/1qsQOC4Jn0fnaUZLAbs4dz

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Imagine Dragons Floods the Airwaves With Another Boring Album

Origins contains a precious few shining moments, which are buried in a slog of poorly written product which just isn’t worth sifting through.

     Imagine Dragons is an alternative rock/pop band from Las Vegas. They gained popularity in 2012 with their double platinum debut LP, Night Visions. The strong push from Interscope Records and the massive popularity of singles like “Radioactive,” and “On Top of the World,” were important in their success, but the most important factor was Imagine Dragons’ ability to tap into the growing EDM wave which was cresting at this time, and give it a more accessible slant. This ability netted them two more platinum releases in 2015’s Smoke + Mirrors and 2017’s Evolve.

   While the group hasn’t exactly been a critical darling over the years, their commercial success is hard to deny and the lead up to this album is no exception. With four singles released ahead of time, including one written for the upcoming Wreck It Ralph sequel, Imagine Dragons has once again overtaken the radio in preparation for this LP. Now that it’s finally here, I must say, it’s a pretty weak outing.

   The production, of course, is well done. Working with Interscope Records, it’s virtually impossible to put out a project which isn’t well polished and put together. Origins is no exception. This isn’t nearly enough to save the album, but for so-so tracks like “Cool Out,” or “Bad Liar,” it’s enough to push them over the hump into listenable territory.

   Dan Reynolds’ vocals also have a few shining moments. The opener, “Natural,” has a genuinely impressive bridge, and actually got my hopes up far higher than they should’ve been. Throughout the album, Reynold’s vocals, even when performing obnoxious melodies, are one of the only redeemable qualities of this album.

   When we come to lyrics, there are exactly two well written tracks which are, puzzlingly, stuck on the very tail end of the ridiculous 50 minute runtime. “Burn Out,” tells a fairly conventional story of battling stress and depression, and though the song is certainly hindered by an abrasive instrumental, the sentiment is expressed well. The best track on the record is the closer, “Real Life,” the only of the fifteen tracks to cover a remotely interesting topic. It follows a man as her attempts to hold his marriage together in spite of the horrors of the modern world. It’s an interesting look at how the terrors of the external world, namely 9/11 and the Boston Bombing, effect the personal lives of those who aren’t directly involved. It’s a unique topic, and it’s handled well, lyrically.

   Lyrics, however, are a great place to start on my criticisms of this record. Aside from the two I just mentioned, virtually every other track could’ve been written by a computer. Tracks like “Only,” or “Zero,” are just meaningless. Even a track like “West Coast,” which is genuinely singable, is poisoned by a constant flow of pseudo-meaningful lyricism.

   When the lyrics do try to mean something, however, I’m left missing the soullessness of the previous tracks. Perhaps the most egregious here is “Love,” in which Reynolds drones on about the evils of racism in a series of platitudes, ignoring the real issues of institutional and generational racism, to simply point out that we all have the same blood and that skin color doesn’t matter. It’s naiveté borders on disrespect and it’s easily the weakest track of the bunch.

   The only common theme that can be found throughout appears heavily in tracks like “Machine,” “Digital,” or “Bullet in a Gun.” That is this idea of being an “outsider,” and dealing with the pressures to conform and give up their artistic integrity. Now, ignoring the fact that this band’s debut album went double platinum by essentially commercializing a sound which was popular in the underground before them, even these tracks are purely top 40 style, pop hits. This, along with very poor writing, makes these songs feel particularly disingenuous. The bridge on “Bullet in a Gun,” in which Reynolds shouts “sell out,” at himself nearly made me turn the record off.

   Beyond these lyrical and thematic issues, the instrumentals and hooks are just dreadful. “Boomerang,” borders on unlistenable, “Birds,” is smothered with decade-old trap cymbals, and “Stuck” is driven by an annoying drum track and vocal line that ruins whatever there may have been to appreciate.

   When Imagine Dragons hit the scene, their sound was flawed and a bit watered-down, but their youthful energy and catchy delivery masked most of their short comings. Half a decade later, all of that has faded to leave a boring shell of a group.

   Origins contains a precious few shining moments, which are buried in a slog of poorly written product which just isn’t worth sifting through.

2/10

HEAR ORIGINS: https://open.spotify.com/album/3JfSxDfmwS5OeHPwLSkrfr

Twenty One Pilots Reemerge With Catchy but Deeply Flawed Fifth Album

With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

     Twenty One Pilots is an alternative hip-hop/pop/electronica duo from Columbus Ohio. They worked their way up through the music industry with an organic, grassroots fanbase eating up their self-titled debut and the follow up, Regional at Best in 2009 and 2011 respectively. They went on to sign a deal with Fueled by Ramen and release their breakout LP, Vessel in 2013, which still holds up to this day thanks to it’s youthful exuberance and experimental nature. Their 2015 follow up, Blurryface hasn’t aged nearly as well as it’s predecessor, though it was well received with the “Stressed Out” single netting them a grammy in 2016. Earlier this year, Blurryface became the first album in music history to have at least a gold certification for every track.

   Twenty One Pilots have been touring relentlessly since their last release until their recent and rather pretentious announcement that Trench would release later this year. Social media was abuzz and the first few singles showed quite a bit of promise. Though the once dominant Fueled By Ramen label has, in recent years, become a cesspool of thirty-something year old pop-rockers singing to twenty-something fans reliving their high school emo days, Twenty One Pilots showed a few signs of life and maturity in their lyricism and sound. I found myself excited to hear Trench, if a bit cautious, and now that it’s out, the record does pack a few surprises.

   The band’s best talent on this record is, as it always was, their ability to write hooks. Tracks like “Chlorine,” or “Morph,” are built around undeniable ear-worms that will bounce around in a listeners head for weeks to come. Even some of the records later cuts, “Bandito,” for example, are extremely catchy and feature very well written choruses.

   Beyond this, Josh Dunn’s drums are, of course, a treasure trove of fun fills and rhythms. “Legend” features a fun, easy rock beat which stands as one of the last remnants of the duo’s earlier sound. Much of the closer, “Leave This City,” on the other hand is driven by a fairly complex cymbal rhythm which all but makes up for the unremarkable nature of the track.

   Tyler Joseph’s contributions, however, are not as consistent. He gives an excellent, emotional performance on the opener and my favorite cut, “Jumpsuit,” and his quirky vocal is perfect for the upbeat tribute to his wife, “Smithereens.” His rapping, though, is not nearly as exciting on the trap influenced “Levitate,” or most anywhere else he raps on this project. Where Tyler’s screaming flow was once erratic and youthful, it comes off as awkward or uninteresting on much of Trench.

   The instrumentals are rarely memorable, but do provide a few highlights. The fuzzy guitar on the aforementioned opener are fantastic, and the discreet ukulele on “Nico and the Niners” is a nice touch. Furthermore, a few of the more electronic tracks like “My Blood,” or “The Hype,” are actually quite rich and mix in Joseph’s newfound love of bass guitar well.

   Lyrically we find an odd issue rearing its head. Songs like “Neon Gravestones,” or “Legend,” benefit from interesting choices in topic, especially the former which indicts our culture’s glorification of mental illness and suicide. The bulk of the lyricism is relatively inoffensive, though a bit repetitive.

   However, Trench is constantly plagued by an effort to develop an absurdly intricate concept following a dystopian future and some kind of rebellion against a theocratic government with so many characters and details that virtually no casual or even dedicated listener could unweave it without reading the loads of written material which the band uploaded along with the album. The vast majority of the storyline takes place in the writing with the album only casually mentioning it and many tracks completely forgoing the concept all together. This has the effect of interrupting otherwise interesting songs with ridiculous and meaningless lyrics which only exist to loosely tie in the plot of this external story. In short, Trench is a textbook example of how not to write a concept album.

   The only other complaint I have falls mainly over the second half of the album in that much of it is simply boring. Tracks like “Cut My Lip,” and “Pet Cheetah,” are messy and go nowhere, with the latter easily standing as the low point of the record. “Bandito,” though featuring a nice hook, doesn’t justify it’s five and a half minute runtime as none of the musical ideas really grow or develop in anyway.

   Trench is an odd album because it shines in many ways. Josh Dunn is as good as ever on drums, Paul Meany’s production leads to many interesting, small touches to be discovered on repeat plays, and Tyler Joseph clearly still has the ability to craft interesting musical ideas. This album could even pass as an alright addition to the Twenty One Pilots catalog, but after revisiting Vessel or even Blurryface, it becomes clear that Trench lacks a certain youthful energy which once glaze over the weaker elements of the band’s work.

   With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

5/10

HEAR TRENCH: https://open.spotify.com/album/621cXqrTSSJi1WqDMSLmbL